Whether you’re just starting out or looking to build on a successful career, the rail industry might just be your ticket. It’s a sector that offers rich and rewarding career pathways for people across many disciplines, beyond straight engineering. That includes people with expertise in finance, safety, commercial, HR, information systems – the list goes on!
Our conversation with Nafisah Aslam-Zainudeen started with her career journey in railway engineering but extended far beyond. As Head of Engineering and Assurance for one of the UK’s busiest railway networks, Greater Anglia, she shares her best tips for you to achieve career success, no matter your industry.
1. Ground your qualifications, skills, and capabilities
First and foremost, it makes sense to launch a career in line with your qualifications and skills. For Nafisah, that meant gaining and applying for her graduate degree in engineering.
Her first role as an engineering graduate was on the scheme run by (what is now known as) the Rail Delivery Group. She then went on to build her experience with a number of train operators, including TransPennine Express, First Capital Connect, and GTR.
“I worked on the Thameslink Rolling Stock Project for seven years, introducing our country’s Class 700s – trains capable of carrying more passengers and reaching higher speeds. It enabled me to see the different stages of new train projects, from reviewing a design on paper, to testing a fully-built train.”
She continued to grow her skills working for a range of engineering consultancies, including Ricardo Rail and WSP. And eventually, she gained an opportunity to work for Southwestern Railway, in a similar capacity to her current role.
2. Strengthen your capabilities
Since joining Greater Anglia this year, as Head of Engineering and Assurance, Nafisah is primarily responsible for managing safety risk within the engineering team. But it’s a very multidimensional job.
“To put it simply, there are two types of risk my team and I manage. The first is risk from a technical perspective – that is, managing any issues, defects, or changes made to our trains. The second is operational safety risk, for our engineering colleagues who work at the many sites across our network.”
This includes providing assurance that Greater Anglia is complying with legislation, processes, procedures, and requirements set by ISO (International Organization for Standardization).
“To do this, we complete a number of different engineering activities, including risk assessments, internal audits, audits on our suppliers, in-process checks, and quality maintenance audits.”
Essentially, this means ensuring all their engineers are trained and competent to undertake their roles, and managing and controlling the large number of procedures and processes that enable Greater Anglia to complete activities safely at different sites.
“It takes a huge amount of teamwork and relationship-building throughout our business, and externally with Alstom and Stadler (the owners of the trains at Angel Trains and Rock Rail), and various other industry bodies.”
That all makes sense so far. But what about other challenges she’s faced, particularly with respect to working in a male-dominated industry?
3. Navigate challenges as they come
As a seasoned engineering professional in the rail industry, Nafisah hasn’t in fact, experienced any negative or gender-based challenges in the organization.
“I’m happy to say I haven’t come across any negative attitudes or challenges here – in fact, quite the opposite! I’ve felt empowered and supported by my line manager and wider engineering senior leadership team to do my role and make decisions as required.
“Not to mention, since starting on the railways 16 years ago, I’ve seen things have only kept getting better for women.”
A positive outlook for the industry. And the difference a supportive, inclusive company can provide.
In particular, she’s also been inspired to see the number of women in senior leadership positions in engineering across the industry.
“I think the biggest challenge for me, personally, is one faced by most working parents. That is, balancing my role with substantial responsibilities and workload with home life and caring for my children.”
4. Develop important personal qualities
If you’re an aspiring or current leader, perhaps it’s no surprise there are some essential qualities Nafisah thinks are worthwhile having. (But they’re great qualities for all professionals too!)
“Personally, I believe that’s honesty, integrity, and transparency. To earn the respect of your team and manage people well, you need these qualities. You have to be clear about your expectations, with a dose of empathy too. At the end of the day, everyone has something going on – there always needs to be a bit of give and take.”
In the day-to-day for her, that means saying ‘thank you’ and giving people a pat on the back. Things that, for many of us, are always appreciated.
5. Pursue your passion
Finally, to achieve your goals Nafisah touts the value of putting in the hard work while retaining flexibility.
“In my experience, that means being flexible with timescales. Sometimes, you just have to roll with the punches, because things don’t always go as expected. I learned this from experience, and knew it was something I’d apply long-term – despite it taking some time for me to reach this realization!”
For those who are passionate about career progression, whether in engineering, leadership, or beyond, Nafisah encourages:
“Don’t waste time in, or contemplating regret. Just go for it! Keep laying your tracks and you’ll get there.”